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Paying Farmers not to Farm Eco-Sensitive Land

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Touch the Soil News #309

This year the USDA is celebrating 30 years of the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program). In prior decades, breaking out land for farming was not particularly eco-sensitive. Once the politics worked out, it was decided that the best plan was to give incentives to farmers to voluntarily not farm the land and plant it back to native species – and allow wildlife to return. The lands targeted for the program were often hilly farms with excessive erosion and key to wildlife and wetland restoration. The payments are minimal – often between $35 and $45 per acre.

The government put a statutory cap on the number of acres at 24 million acres. At present, there are 23.6 million acres enrolled. Since 1985, when the CRP was started, the USDA estimates the following benefits have accrued:

  1. The lands have sequestered 49 million tons of greenhouse gases – an amount equal to taking 9 million cars off the road.
  2. Prevented 9 billion tons of soil from erosion – enough to fill 600 million dump trucks
  3. Reduced nitrogen and phosphorous runoff by 95 and 85 percent respectively.
  4. The CRP protects more than 170,000 stream miles with forests and grasses – enough to go around the world seven times.
  5. The CRP has led to the restoration of 2.7 million acres of wetlands.

Topsoil is the thin skin of the Earth. Estimates are that we are losing up to 1 percent of the world’s topsoil to erosion every year – most of it caused by agriculture.

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One of the key focuses of the CRP program is to arrest soil erosion. While the politics of whether or not we as a culture should pay for conserving our soils continues – the real risks are too high to ignore. Soil erosion presents one of the largest risks to food security and future risk of planetary hunger. Following is a recent video clip on the risks of topsoil loss.

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